KD: Nets’ hurdle-filled ’22 ‘brought us together’

    Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Brooklyn Nets went through a lot in 2022.

At times throughout the year, the drama surrounding the organization seemed to overwhelm the team. But as the calendar year came to a close Saturday night, Kevin Durant and his teammates and coach reflected on one of the most eventful years in recent NBA history as the Nets rattled off their 11th straight win, a 123-106 triumph, over the Charlotte Hornets.

“It was one of those years you reflect on and you see the turning points in the organization,” Durant said after scoring 23 points in 30 minutes. “We’ve seen different moments that brought us together as a group. You see, at this point now towards the end of the year, you start to see us come together and perform what we’ve been looking to do these last couple of years, which was a solid team that plays hard every night. So we went through a lot in this calendar year but we’re looking for bigger and better things in 2023.”

Seemingly no team grabbed more headlines on and off the floor in 2022 than the Nets did. Kyrie Irving’s return as a part-time player because of his decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccination dominated the conversation over the first three months of the year because until the vaccination mandate in New York City changed for athletes and performers in late March. James Harden’s decision to force his way out of Brooklyn created major change on the roster in February. Ben Simmons’ departure from Philadelphia and subsequent arrival in Brooklyn was a constant source of intrigue across the league. Simmons had to smile on Saturday when asked how to sum up the last 12 months.

“A lot of ups and downs,” Simmons said. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to even sum it up. Basketball-wise I think it’s been great. Start of the year we had some different expectations, a lot of noise, a lot of different things going on, but I think we had a lot of poise with this season and with all the different things going on so it’s been an eventful year.”

The Boston Celtics’ first round sweep over the Nets ended the team’s season abruptly in April. Less than two months later Durant asked for a trade and it was unclear whether Irving would pick up his player option for $36.5 million. Later in the summer, after Irving eventually picked up his option, Durant decided to pull back his request and open the season with the Nets.

The good vibes of training camp were short-lived after a slow start. Former coach Steve Nash and the Nets agreed to part ways in early November. Jacque Vaughn was hired as head coach later that month, only after many in the league, and the organization thought suspended Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka would get the job. And in the midst of all the turmoil, Irving was suspended eight games after he posted on social media about a book and movie centering around anti-semetic tropes.

Through it all, the Nets have shown resilience, rattling off 15 wins in their last 16 games, a feat that seemed almost inconceivable just after Vaughn took over and the group gave up 153 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 15.

“When we came back for this season, the start of the season, there was a lot of talk in the summertime, but for us to bring the group back together and start the year was cool,” Durant said. “And then once Jacque became the coach and we started to move forward then, obviously that was a turning point for us. Then we had some stuff that wasn’t ideal.

“Guys out the lineup, Kyrie out the lineup, James Harden demanded a trade, there was a lot of stuff that we went through. How we started from an outside perspective, the noise around our team, it’s good that we can be about ball going into this new year. We’re playing a solid brand right now so that’s the most important thing.”

Vaughn has provided a stabilizing force since taking over for Nash and the players have responded to his style so far, a style that includes far less practice and shootaround time than in years past.

“He gives you an ease,” Irving said. “When you come into the locker room nothing’s forced, he’s not too high or too low. He’s just holding himself to a high standard, exemplifying what a leader should look like. So as our head coach, as our leader, I’ve been able to learn some things from him.

“And that’s just being able to have relationships with everybody and being able to get the best out of everybody. And that’s been a lesson for me, I felt like this year was just learning how to get the best out of everybody instead of trying to do it all yourself or trying to overthink the game. We’ve got good pieces in that locker room, a good coaching staff. The level of play should raise and it should get easier.”

Vaughn pumps positivity into his team, like Nash tried to do before him, but in Vaughn’s mind the combination of both health and a no excuse mentality has been the reason the group has really started clicking.

“Our ability to take criticism and move on has really grown as a group amongst each other,” Vaughn said. “From the coach, from the coaching staff, with the sake of we’re going to get it figured out at the end of the day. So that part has been huge for our group.”

As the group looks forward into 2023, they do so believing that they can achieve the championship level goals they’ve had for themselves over the last few years. With Durant playing at an MVP level and Irving playing at an All-Star level while not proving to be a distraction off the floor since returning from his suspension, the Nets appear poised to keep the good times rolling going into the new year.

“In my experiences in Philly we had a young team and we had guys who were not used to being in the league for that long,” Simmons said. “So not knowing how to win and not knowing it’s not easy to win. We have a lot of vets on the team. Ky, Kev, and understanding it’s game by game and not getting too carried away with it.”

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